by Rev. Doug Martindale
Texts: Jeremiah 29: 7
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile
and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
“Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life” is one of very few hymns published in The Hymnary of 1930, the red Hymn Book of 1971 and Voices United, published in 1996.
So, what is it that is enduring about this hymn? Is it the tune? Is it the lyrics? Is it the combination of tune and lyrics which, by happenstance, fit together perfectly? Or is it the timelessness of the lyrics so that city dwellers everywhere can still identify the “cries of race and clan,” and “haunts of wretchedness and need”?
Or is it because there still stirs in the souls of all of us a desire to give a cup of water in Christ’s name to those who are famished and thirsty for physical and spiritual food? Let us examine this classic hymn beginning with the composer and then the author and see if we can identify why it is still appealing and still sung in our churches.
The composer of this hymn was William Gardiner who lived from 1770 to 1853. He was born in Leicester, England and was a gifted musician since at age six he sang a solo at a wedding, later learned to play the piano and viola and as a teenager wrote a march for troops returning from war in America. He was personally acquainted with the Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn.
Please remain seated as we sing the first verse only of “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life”.
It is not necessary to know the details of the life of the author, Frank Mason North, except to say that he was born in New York City and from 1916-1920 he was president of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America and that he wrote more than a dozen hymns. What is significant for understanding the background of this hymn is that Rev. Frank North, later Dr. Frank North, spent all but eight years of his ministerial life in the work of the Christian church in New York City. Few people have known the metropolis of the continent as intimately and as thoroughly as Dr. North.
When he was asked to write a hymn for the Methodist Hymnal of 1905 on city missions, he had never written a hymn before. This one came out of a sermon he was writing on Mathew Chapter 22 v. 9: “Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find”. North wrote: “Where cross the crowded ways of life” and its’ original title was “A Prayer for the City”. It was a direct outpouring of his own burdened heart for the great city and its greater needs. He knew its’ “haunts of wretchedness” its “shadowed thresholds dark with fears” its “famished souls” its “restless throngs” its “lures of greed”.
And knowing all these needs his heart, like that of Jesus, was “moved with compassion” so he prayed. This is a prayer hymn that is still relevant to modern day conditions.
The editors of one modern hymnbook have tried to sanitize the second line of the first verse by writing “Where angry people’s cries are heard” as a substitute for the original “Where sound the cries of race and clan”. In many of our cities we hear the cries of racism and gangs, which I think is a better paraphrase of the original. Above the noise of violence and the media sensationalizing that violence and the cries for revenge and punishment, can we hear the voice of Jesus?
If we can, what is Jesus calling us to say and do in response to the cries of desperation?
Where do we see the “haunts of wretchedness and need” in our district? We don’t need to look very far. I was at the Lake Country Senior’s Centre recently and a homeless person is living in a tent between the senior’s centre and the food bank. And in Kelowna recently a landlord successfully negotiated with squatters to have them leave after having his vacant house illegally occupied for a year. My guess is that it was desperation and need that caused people to break in and find shelter.
“On shadowed thresholds dark with fear” reminds me of the sexually exploited youth that I saw on my way to work in the North End of Winnipeg every day. Their average age of beginning to be exploited on the streets is 13. They are mere children when they begin selling their bodies for money or food or shelter. Imagine the fear in their lives as they wonder if the next customer will beat them up or if they will end up dead in a ditch or in a field outside the city.
We can turn to the daily news for other examples of people and places that are dark with fear. For example, gay, lesbian and transgender people felt excluded, discriminated against and even unsafe in Canadian hockey culture. Some of them solved this problem by starting their own hockey leagues in cities like Toronto and Montreal.
The original version of this hymn included “women’s grief, man’s burdened toil.” What is “woman’s grief”? Perhaps it is the burden of being a single parent with several kids. Perhaps it is the burden of having a medically necessary abortion, as was touchingly described as “the heartbreaking reality of terminating pregnancy” in a long article in the Globe and Mail recently. The author, Emma Gilchrist, wrote about the burden of choice. A counsellor says it adds a whole other layer of trauma. Every new grief tugs on the thread of old griefs. She bore this grief mostly alone, as thousands of women do, because her partner was trying to remain strong instead of sharing his grief. Women’s grief is very real, all around us, and for the most part, not shared.
What is “man’s burdened toil”? Very few men are engaged in manual labour anymore but what about the burden of being constrained by society’s expectations so that many men feel they can’t cry or can’t be seen to cry? Or men who can’t allow themselves to be tender and loving or even more threatening, to be open and honest about feelings with other men? I went to see friend yesterday and after our visit I realized that I had done more talking then listening. I need to work on being present and share feelings, rather than just chat.
Where do “we catch the vision of your tears” God? Is it in the compassion of the staff at emergency shelters and soup kitchens? Do we have a vision of how to help people in compassionate ways or to envision better ways to house people then emergency shelters?
I think my son had a vision when he encouraged my grandchildren to make sandwiches for homeless people which they delivered to the tents on the riverbank in Winnipeg. Significantly, they also spoke to them so that they were seen as real people and not objects of fear.
Where do we see the tears of Jesus? Is this where Jesus is weeping over these hearts of pain and restless throngs? Do we weep over the pain and restlessness we see about us? If weeping is the first step towards action then the next step is prayer. We can pray for the welfare of our cities, just as Jeremiah urged the exiles in Babylon to pray for their city. When watching the news we may want to disengage because there are too many problems or we believe there is nothing we can do.
God’s heart does not “recoil” from the suffering of humans. God embraces our suffering, and we are his hands on this earth and we need to embrace the suffering of those around us.
“The cup of water given for thee” is something we understand and practice in the United Church and is part of our social gospel heritage that began with our Methodist, Congregationalist and Presbyterian ancestors. We are doing this whenever we donate to the Mission and Service Fund and people are helped in and across Canada and around the world with the basic necessities of life, non-profit housing, seniors’ homes and much, much more. We hope that this holds the “freshness of God’s grace” for them.
Frank North in his prayer/hymn asks that Jesus would “tread the city’s streets again”. What is he really asking? Is he asking that Jesus return as envisioned in the second coming in a way we don’t understand? Or does he pray that Jesus’ spirit will return to “heal these hearts of pain” because there is such a great need for healing? I think it is the latter and the expression “from the mountain side” suggests that healing may come like a cool breeze, down from the mountains.
The last stanza ends the hymn with a vision of the future. I think there may be two futures: one in which men and women learn to live with loving relationships through connection with Jesus and one in which God’s heavenly kin-dom is established on earth. The latter is the vision from the Book of Revelation of a New Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God”.
We who live in cities need to see the face of Jesus in all whom we meet-the poor and the rich, the aboriginal person and the immigrant, the stranger and the neighbour. They are all about us and we can be God’s grace to them and know and embrace their suffering just as God does. This hymn resonates with us as human beings because not much has changed since these words were written. Until the day of the New Jerusalem, which John of Patmos saw as a holy city, coming down out of heaven from God, let us “work and pray for the welfare of our city, not because “on its welfare our welfare depends.” Rather, because we see the Christ in our neighbour, and we are moved by grace and by compassion to prayer and action.
“The Opposite Life” by Emma Gilchrist, The Globe and Mail p 1, Opinion, September 10, 2022